With the obvious exception of ordained seminary professors, if you were to ask most Christian clergy how often they get asked questions about doctrine, they would probably chuckle sardonically at least a little. Some clergy would probably not care about that bit of irony, and they would likely not chuckle. But the chucklers would be chuckling because they know that most Christians no longer really care hardly anything about doctrine.
It was not always so:
This city [Constantinople] is full of common laborers, who are all profound theologians; and preach in the shops, and in the streets. If you want a man to exchange a piece of silver, he informs you how the Son is different from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you are told, by way of reply, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask whether the bath is ready, the answer is, that the Son was made out of nothing. —St. Gregory of Nyssa, 4th c. (Oration on the Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit)
Now, I will not be so romantic as to suggest that the fourth century was a golden age of highly educated laity to which we must aspire to return, but clearly, in the sixteen centuries since this remark by St. Gregory, something has changed.
It could be argued that we are now more educated than ever before, that our scientific progress is the furthest that history has ever seen. Literacy levels in our culture are probably the highest in history. And yet, somehow, even among church people, people who say they love God and want to know Him, questions about theology are almost entirely unknown. Even in the inter-religious groups of clergy I’ve taken part in, we curiously almost never discuss theology.
Many of us acquire and master vast knowledge about the history, rules, regulations, rivalries, players and coaches of football, baseball, or some other sport. Almost all of us have fairly strong and informed opinions about politics and political figures. Many of us have great knowledge about medical procedures and human anatomy, even those who are not doctors. Plenty of folks among us could explain to you in detail about how to invest and make money. And a number among us, including me, could tell you in some detail who all the various actors are who have ever been regulars on any of the six television series and eleven feature films of Star Trek. (Yes, I’ve seen them all, including Star Trek: The Animated Series.)
We’re not dumb, and we’re not incapable of being the kind of people St. Gregory talks about, but we mostly just don’t care any more. Why? It’s because of a movement from the Protestant Reformation called pietism, whose most pervasive inheritance to us Christians is the feeling that doctrine doesn’t really matter, that a serious Christian is marked not so much by what he believes but by how sincerely he feels about God and by his moral behavior. Pietism has spread far beyond the churches of the Reformation and their numerous children, and it affects Christians of every communion, including Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.
Ironically, though, even though most Christians no longer care about doctrine, they still believe in it, though more often at a subconscious level. But even beyond the question of belief is the effect that doctrine has on their worship, their morality, and their sense of how to bring the Gospel to other people. Here are a few examples: If you do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you probably will not have communion often, and when you do, you may well give it to just anyone. If you believe in “once saved, always saved,” logically, you can spend your life in sin, being comfortable in the knowledge that you have your irrevocable ticket to Heaven. If you do not believe that any one church is the true Church, then you will probably not care about heresy and you will not care that people who believe something radically different from what you do could be heading in a different spiritual direction than you are; you may even begin to say that all religions are “true” paths.
Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, doctrine really does matter. It matters even for atheists. What you believe about the nature of the universe, whether or not there is a God or gods, whether or not a divine being would become a man, and what all that means will have a profound effect on how you live your life, both for yourself and in community (or lack thereof) with others.
This weblog project, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, is dedicated to the ongoing pursuit of these great questions, most especially in terms of how different theologies relate to and critique one another. Theology and doctrine aren’t the mealy-mouthed meanderings of professors in seminaries and universities. They’re the how-to manual for mystical union with the divine, for properly living this life and getting into the next in one piece, and for seeing and experiencing the deep meaning present in every person, every tree, every rock and every sub-atomic particle. If you follow the how-to manual in the right way, you get the right results. If you follow it in the wrong way, or you follow some other manual, then you get different results.
The writers on this site are Orthodox Christians. They belong to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church—the Orthodox Church. The writing here reflects this membership not as a brand loyalty or as an ideology, but rather as participation in the prophetic, apostolic work begun by Christ through His Apostles. Where Orthodoxy meets heterodoxy (teachings that deviate from Orthodoxy), there is something to be learned, something to be refined, something to be improved, and often something to be set aside.
It’s because theology isn’t just a bunch of spiritual opinions. Theology is not just life and death, but eternal life and death. We have to get it right not just so we can belong to the right churchy club, but so we can grab hold of sanity in an insane world, so we can seek out the profound while surrounded by triviality, so we can pursue beauty in the midst of ugliness.
Orthodoxy means true glory (among other things), and that is what we seek.
This site’s tagline—Doctrine Matters—is not just an affirmation that Orthodox dogma is a necessary part of the spiritual life. Doctrine (“teaching”) includes not just dogma, but every teaching and true tradition pertaining to union with the Holy Trinity—worship, asceticism, hierarchy, canonical tradition, and so forth. Doctrine is what we are taught and what we teach.
I hope you’ll add this site to your bookmarks, RSS feeds, subscriptions, etc., and that you’ll participate in discussion and even will consider submitting articles for review and possible publication. In the future, you can expect to read many voices from within Orthodoxy speaking their faith, commenting on the doctrines of other faiths, sometimes together, sometimes not entirely agreeing with each other, sometimes in a series of articles individually or with other writers, and sometimes in single pieces on something that occurs to one of us.
Thanks for reading this far, and thanks for coming along on this journey, this pursuit of the one thing needful.
Our first series of coordinated posts is going to be on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. Stay tuned. We begin next week.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.